Overcoming the corporate immune system – some lessons from the dengue virus
The term corporate immune system was coined by James Birkenshaw as a way to describe the tendency of corporate head offices to resist entrepreneurial initiatives by their subsidiaries. In the present day, the term has also been used to refer to the tendency of organisations to reject or suppress novel ideas or processes that employees may come up with. This post is about the latter usage of the phrase.
The metaphor of an immune system is an apt one: apart from being a good description of what happens, it also suggests ways in which one can overcome or bypass managerial resistance to initiatives that are seen as threats. In this post I build on Stefan Lindegaard’s excellent article, to discuss how the Dengue virus can teach us a trick or two about how employees can get around the corporate immune system.
The mechanics of Dengue infection
Dengue fever, also known as breakbone fever, is endemic to many tropical countries. Its symptoms are fever, severe headaches, muscle and joint pains and a characteristic skin rash. Dengue is caused by a virus that is transmitted by the Aedes Aegyptii mosquito which can be identified by the white bands on its legs. Although it originated in Africa, the Aedes species is now found in most tropical and sub-tropical countries throughout the world.
There are four closely related strains (or serotypes) of the Dengue virus– imaginatively named Dengue 1 through Dengue 4. This has interesting consequences as we shall see shortly. First let’s have a quick look at what goes on in the human body after a bite from carrier mosquito. My discussion is based on this article from the Scitable website.
Once a person is bitten by a carrier mosquito, the virus starts to infect skin cells and specialised immune cells (called Langerhans cells) that are near the site of the bite. The infected Langerhans cells travel via the bloodstream to the lymph nodes which are responsible for producing white blood cells (WBCs) that combat infections.
The WBCs are the body’s first line of defence against an infection. The problem is WBCs generally do not succeed in destroying the Dengue virus; worse, they actually end up getting infected by it. The infected white blood cells then help in spreading the virus to other organs in the body.
However, all is not lost because the body has another line of defence – the adaptive immune system – which produces antibodies that target specific intruders. Once the infection spreads, the adaptive immune system kicks in, producing antibodies that recognise and neutralise the virus. The fever an infected person experiences is a manifestation of the battle between the antibodies and the virus. In a healthy person, the immune system eventually wins and the person recovers.
Now here’s the interesting bit: a person who has been infected by the virus gains long term immunity, but only against the particular Dengue serotype that he or she was infected by. If the person is bitten by a mosquito carrying another serotype, the antibodies for the old serotype actually assist the new strain to spread within the body. Essentially this happens because the antibodies for the old strain see the new strain as the old one and thus attempt to engulf it. However, because the virus is different, the antibody cannot bind with it completely. It thus forms an antibody-virus complex within which the virus is still capable of replicating.
These circulating antibody-virus complexes then infect other white blood cells which in turn carry the virus to other parts of the body. This results in a higher volume of virus in the bloodstream than would have occurred otherwise, and hence a more severe infection. This is well known: subsequent infections of Dengue often lead to considerably more severe symptoms than the first one.
The above description is sufficient for the present discussion, but you may want to see this article to learn more about this fascinating virus.
Overcoming the corporate immune system
The processes of primary and secondary Dengue infections hold some lessons for those who want to gain executive support for proposals that might be just a tad too radical for their workplaces. A direct approach, wherein the idea is pitched directly to executives is unlikely to work for at least a couple reasons:
- The generic corporate immune system (akin to white blood cells in the human body) will attempt to take it down. This is typified by the generic, “It will never work here (so let’s not try it)” response.
- Let’s assume that you are at your persuasive best and manage to get past the generic first line corporate defence. You still cannot rest easy because, in time, managerial ingenuity will come up specific managerial objections to the idea (these are akin to strain-specific antibodies).
However, all is not lost, we can take inspiration from the secondary infection process described in the previous section. The second serotype is able to do a more thorough job in infecting its host because antibodies actually help in transporting the virus through the body. This happens because the antibodies do not fully recognise the virus and thus bind with it incompletely.
So the trick to getting your idea past the corporate immune system is to cast it in terms that are familiar to managers and to get them to have a stake in it. Here’s one way to do this:
- Make a connection between your idea and an already well-established element or aspect of your organisation. Be sure to stress this connection in your pitch (see point 2). This way, the idea is seen as a logical continuation what already exists – i.e. it is seen as old rather than new, much as the old serotype antibodies see the new strain as the old one.
- Present your idea to a manager who may be in a position to help you, seeking her advice on it.
- Take the advice offered seriously – i.e. modify the idea in a way that incorporates the advice.
- Re-present the idea to the manager, thanking her for their advice and emphasising how it makes a difference.
- If they are receptive, ask her if she’d would be willing to socialise the idea amongst her peers. If you have genuinely taken her advice, chances are she’ll be willing to do this. After all, the idea is now hers too.
The above are generic steps that can be tailored to specific situations. For example, the same principles apply when writing a business case for a new system or whatever – emphasise continuity and get people to be a part of the idea by offering them a stake in it. The bottom line is that the corporate immune response can be “tricked” into accepting novel ideas, much as the human immune system is fooled by the Dengue virus.
The metaphor of a corporate immune system not only provides an evocative description of how organisations kill novel ideas, but also suggests how such organisational resistance can be overcome. In this post I have described one such strategy based on the fiendishly clever dengue virus.